Organizing is the answer at higher education conference

The AFT Higher Education conference this year was all about organizing—which is another way of saying it was all about preserving the union, fighting for working families, advancing union values, saving public higher education, and promoting social equity and justice. All these are dependent on reliable organizing: reaching union members, reaching out to nonmembers and coordinating with community coalitions; organizing them to fight against anti-worker, right-to-work efforts and the defunding of higher ed; and leading them to fight forward for powerful, pro-student, pro-public school policy.

The fight is essential, said Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, a leading voice in conversations about higher education and equity, and one of the featured conference speakers. "We've got ourselves a new administration that can feel like a new world order," she said, though for many people the landscape feels like more of the same: "exclusion, denigration, marginalization, just at a new scale." Specifically, America preaches the "gospel" that everyone must go to college, Cottom said, but then lawmakers refuse to fund it. Hence the rise of private, for-profit colleges that fleece students and taxpayers, a subject Cottom writes about in her book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.

Randi Weingarten at higher ed conference

AFT President Randi Weingarten described "an awakening" since the presidential election, and a "tremendous appetite for resistance," one that the AFT is very much embracing. She gave a special shoutout to AFT members who have been elected to public office and noted the power of activism and participation in the body politic. "Who gives power to working folks?" she asked. "Unions."

Frances Fox Piven, a City University of New York professor and leading sociologist whose work addresses the role of social movements in America, called our times "a movement moment," especially for public higher education—where problems like inequity among adjuncts and inequitable student access make college campuses a natural environment for resistance.

Protests work, said Piven. "They raise issues that elites don't want to raise," their solidarity "taps a kind of power that usually remains dormant," and they break down the roles people are usually locked into. "When people collectively refuse to play their normal and institutionalized roles, they disrupt institutional life," said Piven. "They threaten ungovernability. That is a lever of power."

Protest signs on display

Speaker Jane McAlevey, a firebrand organizer who grew up on picket lines and whose deep experience organizing unions is packed into two lively volumes of stories and practical advice, addressed the nuts and bolts of successful organizing. Her detailed descriptions about her essential wall charts (to track membership status), and her central point about "leaders" being different from "activists" (leaders are naturally respected in the workplace and more likely to draw more membership; activists are key to running actions and mobilizations), echoed throughout subsequent workshops as participants unpacked her message and applied it to their own locals.

Each of four workshops addressed organizing or mobilization: "Organizing for Free College," "Organizing for Adjunct Equity," "Organizing a Sanctuary Campus," and "Mobilizing Members to Protect Free Speech, Academic Freedom and Academic Integrity." Participants exchanged firsthand tales of union-busting bosses, email address debacles, and lessons learned during "boss fights" and contract campaigns. Role-playing helped participants envision actual recruiting conversations, and testimonials from the field brought policy, such as "free college," to life.

Workshop participants

For participants who wanted more-specific advice, a drop-in organizing room was set aside for in-depth conversations and problem-solving with AFT staff and experienced colleagues. A contingent faculty reception gave adjuncts and other precariously employed faculty an opportunity to share their stories and victories informally. And a nonviolent bystander training, conducted by Swamp Riot, was a popular draw for those interested in opportunities to organize students and other community members in the protest movement.

Participants left the conference inspired by the final panel of young speakers representing the power of student activism. Troy Neves from United Students Against Sweatshops described student solidarity with adjunct faculty at Northeastern University, where they occupied the president's building, stopped the Boston trains for a half hour, and, to draw attention to the adjuncts' demands, crashed a donor dinner with a birthday cake on the one-year anniversary of the adjuncts' union contract. Nancy Flores described the work of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant advocacy movement that is working with students and educators to pass sanctuary legislation and protect immigrant families. And Lindsey Berger described some of the victories her student-supported group, UnKoch My Campus, has experienced as faculty have won policies to block undue influence from billionaire donors—like the Koch brothers—with designs on influencing college curriculum.

[Virginia Myers/photos by Jim West]